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Smiting Statist Philosophical Philistinism


A reply to Thom Brooks's review of Escape From Leviathan: Liberty, Welfare and Anarchy Reconciled (Macmillan 2000) in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, Vol. 19, No. 1, 2002 (77-83).

It is possible to pose many difficult and fascinating problems and criticisms for the various theses and arguments in Escape From Leviathan (EFL). I did it myself while writing it, and I have had various sharp minds do it for me on reading drafts or the final product. So it has been a disappointment to me that some reviewers hopelessly misunderstand or merely ignore what I wrote and simply reassert their own views. But we ought to answer even utterly hopeless critics, if only to show just how, and how badly, their criticisms fail—lest anyone thinks their arguments are sound. Thus I turn to Thom Brooks’s review.

Early on Brooks states, “J. C. Lester’s conservatism runs counter to my socialist disposition” (77). Words do not matter too much as long as we know what we mean. But you might mislead your readers if your call private-property anarchism 'conservatism’. I cannot see any connection and no explanation is given. Perhaps it is simply an example of the muddle that all so-called right-wingers are in some way the same and 'reactionary’ compared to the supposed 'radicalism’ of the so-called left. But in his footnote 27, Brooks writes that “Lester would greatly reshape the structure of the society in which we live.” So what kind of “conservatism” is that? (Though I do not see libertarianism as 'reshaping’ society, so much as allowing it to change for the better without aggressive interference.)

In response to my stipulative definition of politics in the opening lines of EFL—“By 'politics’ I mean all that, and only what, involves the state”—Brooks asks, “Do we not have 'politics’ in other places? Such as the workplace or in our family?” (80) No, clearly not by the definition I had just stated I was using. A stipulative definition of the precise phenomenon I am tackling is not open to questioning in the way that an essentialist view of politics is. I was not putting forward a theory of 'what politics is’. I am, of course, familiar with the statist view that 'everything is political’. It strikes me as some combination of being tendentious and a conflation of the metaphorical use of the term with its original source. This effectively amounts to an unwitting and confused advocacy of totalitarianism, where everything will indeed be political. Brooks asks, “is not the problem rather of power relationships between people rather than always (state) interference?” (80) No, that is not the problem I am tackling. One general issue in EFL is of proactive impositions and the state is far and away the greatest source of these. Power in itself is not a problem and merely offering or withholding benefits to get cooperation (in the workplace, family, etc.) is not exercising the stick of power in any serious sense, in any case (but the carrot of influence). So I am not “redefining what is at issue.” (80) I am simply stating what the issue is in EFL (very broadly, at least, for the real issue is defending the Liberal Compatibility Thesis: liberty, welfare and anarchy do not clash). It is not up to Brooks to decide what my thesis should have been (“what is at issue”). Moreover, in the rest of the book I do not even stipulatively (re)define the key terms of rationality, liberty, welfare and anarchy. I defend particular theories of these things, which is an entirely different thing. Seeing my defences of these objective theories, and their compatibility, as mere “word play” (80) is a mark of philosophical philistinism on Brooks’s part.

As a footnote to quoting the Compatibility Thesis Brooks writes that it is “a bit remarkable” to see a “utopian anarcho-libertarian theory … rejecting … 'imaginary cases.’” (Footnote 11) More or less libertarian societies have existed; not least in Iceland and Ireland. But the point Brooks misunderstands is that as the Compatibility Thesis is intended to be practical, it is not sufficient that certain clashes in liberty, welfare and anarchy are merely logically possible.

Brooks takes up space to express his surprise that there is perfect interpersonal liberty where “no other person exists besides ourselves!”—a vacuously true point I added for completeness—because liberty is defined as the absence of interpersonal imposed costs. He asks, “But what is interpersonal about this?” (80) Logical implications are sometimes surprising, though this feeling should pass with full understanding of them. But I was, at first, somewhat surprised that he finds this simple point surprising. There clearly cannot be any interpersonal imposition if there is only one person. A case with less confusing connotations might convince him. Consider 'intercoin liberty’ to be 'the absence of intercoin friction.’ If there is only one coin in the world then there must be 'intercoin liberty’ as there is clearly no intercoin friction (for we do not have two coins to rub together). Would Brooks also want to ask, 'But what is intercoin about this?’? He appears to have fallen into some strange version of the classic confusion about how it is possible to assert 'the existence of an absence’. Though perhaps some collectivist prejudice is also involved.

EFL defends welfare as the want-satisfaction of unimposed wants, as Brooks sees. But he then says, “In other words, 'welfare’ is about the instant actualisation of immediate preferences, rather than one’s satisfactory mental and physical health.” (80) That does not follow at all. It is about getting more of what we want overall. If having better “mental and physical health” promotes that for someone then that is for the good of his welfare. Though if he would rather trade some portion of these for other ends—as we all do to varying extents, or life would be intolerably boring—then he is worse off from his point of view if we prevent him. Having said this, I ought to note that the only sense of  “mental … health” (strictly a category mistake, as Thomas Szasz makes clear in so many of his books, not least The Myth of Mental Illness) is that the brain is not malfunctioning in a way that we would rather it did not. Brooks goes on to assert that I have here “made welfare compatible with liberty by simply redefining welfare to resemble liberty.” (81) This is false. This is a theory of welfare that is hardly unique to me: it is what welfare economics is mainly about, for one thing. And I defend it throughout the chapter in the light of a plethora of criticisms. I do not dismiss these criticisms merely by referring people back to, or covertly using, my definition. I cannot go through all the examples here, but one fundamental aspect is that it is the theory of welfare that each accepts for himself. Can Brooks not produce a counterexample or argument to show that people are not better off having more of what they want? If having “satisfactory mental and physical health” was supposed to be it then he needs to explain how he knows just the right amount of these that everyone ought to trade off against the other ends they have in life whether they like it or not. Further, it is clear that this view of welfare can clash with liberty. It is possible than 1. individuals freely and systematically do what gives them less of what they want overall in such a way that state coercion could prevent this, and that 2. state redistribution and regulation could increase overall want-satisfaction. Of course, I think there are some conceptual as well as contingent reasons that these are not so. But both conceptual and contingent points require arguments, which I gave as best I could in the light of the best or typical criticisms I could find. It should be clear that “simply redefining welfare” is not my method.

In the final brief chapter on anarchy, which he mistakes as a “conclusion”, Brooks quotes the opening sentence: “Private-property anarchy is better than the state in the enhancement of liberty and welfare.” He then says, “Again, anarchy would be best if liberty is understood as the absence of all constraints and welfare is understood as best enhanced through one’s living in a state of negative freedom.” (81) As this “again” does not introduce an accurate paraphrase of what even Brooks had to say before, it requires a separate answer. For one thing, 'anarchy’ means 'not being ruled’ not 'not having rules’ (or 'constraints’), as I explain. And in EFL, liberty is nothing like the “absence of all constraints”. It is the absence of proactive impositions by other people. Now, I explicitly argue that, contra the prevailing view, there is a strong conceptual link between liberty and private-property anarchy (and as liberty and private property have been discussed, this is one of the reasons that the chapter is short). I have also defended from many criticisms my independent conceptions of liberty and anarchy. Brooks simply ignores all these arguments because he assumes that the conceptual connection is broader than it is and that it is a loaded assumption on which these arguments rest. I cannot be entirely sure what Brooks intends by “negative freedom”, but I do not use the term in EFL and I have already explained the two crucial ways that welfare as want-satisfaction could in principle clash with liberty. Brooks’s “disappointment” is caused by his error that I offer little more than “word play”.

According to Brooks, “Lester tells us not to worry about the absence of a law-enforcement body bringing about societal chaos.” (81) “Absence”? On the contrary, I expect there to be more than one “law-enforcement body” competitively improving services, unlike the chaos of the state’s coercively imposed monopoly of 'law and order’. I give several references to the relevant literature in the endnote for that paragraph and discuss similar issues, such as libertarian restitution, elsewhere in the book. A casual reading seems to have given Brooks the impression that there won’t be any police, courts, etc., to defend people and their external property. When I write of “a generally libertarian culture” being necessary, I do not mean that everyone will then spontaneously behave themselves. And that libertarianism must be what the majority want, does not mean that what they get will thereby be “majoritarian” in any “tyrannical” sense. (Though I find Brooks’s final sentence obscure on this topic.)

The fact that I admit in the introduction that I personally hold libertarianism as a moral value means that Brooks “finds it difficult to take Lester seriously” (81) when I assert that, nevertheless, EFL defends a non-moral thesis with non-moral arguments. Does Brooks think that a scientist must also somehow use moral arguments in his research on smoking if he happens morally to disapprove of smoking? Or if he produces a scientific paper showing that substance X causes longevity that he must thereby be advocating taking substance X? Brooks is at liberty to cite an example of my somehow using morals but does not do so. Instead, he says that “any position regarding the organization of human beings—or the natural environment—is a moral position …”. (81) But I am not taking any “position”. I am not arguing for the implementation of any “positions or principles”. In EFL’s defence of the compatibility thesis, I do not advocate that anything be done. I merely discuss the philosophical and, to a lesser extent, empirical relationships among liberty, welfare and anarchy. One of the most important tools of philosophy is separating conflated ideas in order to clarify the implications of each. There appears to be more than a suggestion in Brooks’s attitude of the fallacy that research (here involving “the organization of human beings—or the natural environment”) cannot be 'value-free’ (strictly, values can only be in the mind though value arguments can be expressed objectively). Perhaps this accounts for his conflation.

Brooks cites as a “further example” (81) my view that “moral values must be obeyed because if disobeyed they are, ipso facto, not held categorically.” This is not an example either, for this is part of my analysis of what morals are and how they square with the conception of rationality I am defending. It is what is sometimes called meta-ethics. It does not morally advocate anything. I mention this well-known distinction and how it is clearly possible to discuss the nature of morals without taking a 'moral position’ on any particular moral issue (39). Why does Brooks insist on conflating these two things? Brooks then goes on, using the example of unknown and/or unconsented-to extramarital affairs, to ask whether it is “not conceivable to assume” that the people engaged in it can knowingly be doing wrong (presumably doing a particular thing at the same time as thinking that thing wrong, or his example is irrelevant). In other words, he completely ignores all the arguments I give explaining exactly how I think this common sense view is mistaken (which it would make this review too long to repeat). Instead of trying to show where I have gone wrong, he simply asks whether it is “not conceivable to assume” that the common sense view is correct. Has Brooks really grasped what philosophy is supposed to be about? 'I reply to your philosophical arguments by assuming common sense’?

Brooks continues ignoring the arguments in EFL and asserts that we can tell a lie knowing that it is immoral to do so at the time we tell it. He explains: “When we lie, do we not - at least sometimes - feel guilty about it later, if not at the time we speak it? Is not this recognition that we acted contrary to how we ought to have acted an instance of moral self-awareness?” (81-82) So his 'explanation’ is precisely not of us doing what we feel to be wrong at the time of action. I also mention this type of case and various similar possible confusions. Why does Brooks simply ignore them? Again, where is the hint of philosophical analysis in his restatement of the normal view?  Brooks also conflates, without argument or explanation, the crucial distinction I make between knowledge of moral theory and what is felt to be (im)moral. He concludes that I have embraced an “awkward proposition”. (82) So what if it is “awkward”? What is wrong, exactly, with the arguments? Brooks has again taken a relatively small point, and out of its context in the compatibility thesis, and utterly failed to say anything useful, interesting or relevant about it.

It is not part of my “conception of liberty”, as Brooks asserts, but my conception of 'action’ and 'rationality’ when I write that “to act at all is to do what one most desires, most wants, or thinks it best to do” (under the perceived circumstances). He then quotes me on free will, which is also not part of my conception of interpersonal liberty. Brooks writes, “on this account gluttons and smokers are to be understood as being just as 'free’ [JCL: Their wills are just as free.] as those who can curb their appetites and resist addiction. More troublesome …” (82) Hang on. Why was that “troublesome”? Oh, it conflicts with Brooks prior common sense beliefs. So he can ignore the arguments, apparently. Neither is my theory of free will a “definition”, as he asserts. Brooks interprets every theory as a “definition” and then complains that I am merely redefining terms. If “there are numerous examples from psychology which [sic] might damage the credibility of this claim” (my view of free will) why does Brooks not cite at least one of them? He then comes up with this piece of typical 'reasoning’: “In some instances our will may be all that we possess. However, the idea that our will creates our personality and expresses our desires and that we might not have control over our personality and desires, yet have a free will, strikes me as contradictory.” (82) How can our will be all we possess? Have we no bodies? How is what we possess relevant to the issue anyway? Who says “our will creates our personality”, apart from Brooks? Why is it implicitly inconsistent (for it is not a contradiction: A & ~A) exactly that “we might not have control over … desires, yet have a free will”? What is wrong exactly with the explanation given in EFL apart from the fact that it clashes with how it “strikes” Brooks? Why does Brooks systematically avoid philosophical argument?

Brooks definitional confusion continues with his assertion that, “Throughout, Lester has been attempting to redefine libertarianism.” (82) To try to capture and clarify the libertarian conception of liberty is no more an attempt to “redefine” it than an attempt to come up with a more precise theory of the composition of the sun is an attempt to “redefine” the sun. In both cases there is already something there that we are trying to understand better. Brooks appears to imply that my account of liberty as a “voluntary interaction of persons rather than selfish individualism” is part of my 'redefinition’. No, that clarifies what libertarians are getting at in contradistinction to the caricature set up by anti-libertarians. But then Brooks discusses a passage on individualism and families, instead. In observing the fact that the state undermines families and replaces fathers, I was implying nothing about my moral views on the role of the father in families—as Brooks infers. So it is irrelevant for Brooks to call his imagined implication “controversial” (what’s wrong with that anyway?) “perhaps sexist” (what’s wrong with that anyway?) and “in need of some justification” (that’s impossible anyway, as Karl Popper explained). I was replying to John Gray’s point at greater length than he made it, and with references to relevant empirical work. Why should I offer a more detailed explanation than I did? I cited Ferdinand Mount’s Subversive Family, as Brooks notes, but also the considerable canon of Patricia Morgan’s (though one work in particular). Why does Brooks say, in his footnote 23, that Mount’s single book is the main citation? Why should I rehearse all their empirical work instead of getting on with the philosophy that I was supposed to be writing about? If Brooks wants to know about the empirical stuff he should read the books instead of complaining that I offer “no such further explanation of any of these claims”. (82) Brooks quotes me out of context where I admit that my answers to Gray will not “convince those who are sympathetic to any of his points.” For I then go on to explain that this is because of the lack of any detail in Gray’s assertions, that I need to deal with the overall compatibility thesis, and that I have given the citations to the relevant empirical literature.

What is the worth of the claim that the “book’s chapters are a bit uneven running between eleven and ninety one pages”? (83) The introduction is in fact only ten pages. It is only an introduction. The longest chapter is in fact ninety-two pages. (Can’t Brooks get anything right?) It is the chapter on liberty dealing with the bulk of the philosophical problems. Chapters ought to be just as long as they need to be to do the job required. The Procrustean view of chapter length is bizarre. Why is it an “imbalance” that the chapter on liberty is very long and the one on anarchy is very short? I explained in the anarchy chapter exactly why it was short. There were just a few conceptual points to make and some typical prejudices to reply to, because most of the work on private-property had arisen more naturally in the chapter on liberty. It would have been foolish to put those points into the anarchy chapter just to make the chapter lengths more even.

Brooks notes my many “critiques [sic] for opposing viewpoints, but … wonders if [sic] many of them are no more than strawmen.” (83) As Brooks would not know a philosophical argument from a hole in the ground, I do not suppose he will ever find the answer. But why wonder whether someone’s targets are strawmen without even trying to check any of them? We have seen that all of Brook’s targets are strawmen. The reason I wrote that it seemed “better to be 'too quick’ than 'too slow’” was that I knew that the Brookses of this world would always miss the point no matter how much I laboured it. Brooks also notes my admission that I “cannot possibly guess which points will prove the most controversial and for what reasons” and so must press on looking forward to helpful criticism of the book. Ironically, Brooks interprets this as admitting that EFL “knowingly treads along at surface level” and that I avoided “greater reflection and comments by colleagues.” (83) Would that Brooks could even get to grips with the surface. How could he know what “greater depth” is? I received many astute criticisms throughout the writing of EFL and they certainly helped me to clarify a wide variety of points. Brooks apparently doubts that I did this, despite my acknowledgments, because the philosophy is all a bit beyond him. He can dimly make out that it clashes with his “socialist disposition” in some way and so he feels it is a failure on my part that I cannot convince him. That is an unreasonable demand to place on anyone. The more eminent readers of EFL have tended to praise it highly, including Antony Flew, Jan Narveson, Norman Barry and even John Gray and Brian Barry (who admitted he found it hard to fault the philosophical arguments). But then perhaps Brooks’s philosophical abilities are simply too refined for anyone else to appreciate—other than his mother, perhaps. (Brooks’s footnote 26 notes my admission that I cannot deal with the unlimited number of “possible criticisms of want satisfaction as a view of welfare”. So what? And Brooks has ignored the criticisms I did deal with.)

It is possibly misleading to state that I am greatly dissatisfied “with the structure of contemporary Western-liberal society”. (83) It might be clearer to say that I am greatly dissatisfied with state interference “with the structure of contemporary Western-liberal society”. I am not anti-Western or anti-liberal (in the classical sense, of course.)  What, imagined, “costs of the West’s industrial revolution” is Brooks worried about? (Despite the illiberal Acts of Enclosure and twenty-two years of state war—1793-1815—the Industrial Revolution eventually enabled working hours and pay to become better than in agriculture and continue to improve.) What have the “debts being acquired by the third world” got to do with the free market? Who is giving Brooks “bold assurances that history would not repeat itself”? But, in a sense, history will repeat itself in the poor countries of the world, and that is just what they need to get them out of poverty permanently. Brooks then claims that the state has improved, and the 'free market’ has failed, the educational system (even though, for instance, there is now 20% functional illiteracy among school leavers?), transport systems (even though, for instance, there are far fewer miles of railways in the UK than when first nationalised?), the environment (even though, for instance, political intervention has typically prevented people from suing for negative environmental effects on their persons and property?), child labour (even though this helps families in countries not yet well developed?) and overtime (even though working hours generally decrease without state intervention as wages rise in freer economies?). This is the sort of ignorance that state education has made normal. I cannot deal in detail here with Brooks’s empirical falsehoods. I listed many relevant works throughout EFL and if any particular issue was missed there then Brooks can easily do a search for it. He thinks “anarcho-capitalist conceptions need to engage these concerns at a much deeper level” because he has not understood what he has read and because he has simply not read the books that explain the things he thinks he knows about. Brooks outlines his own naïve political views: “It is a government’s job to maintain fairness … protecting the environment…” (83) If he is teaching at his listed university, it is Brooks’s job to know something about what he is teaching. But, judging by his review, he does not have a clue. And others are forced to pay for him.

There are certain people whose admiration ought to concern us. Hence, it is something of a relief to find that Brooks cannot recommend EFL (along with two others, both edited by Peter Valentyne and Hillel Steiner) for the first time in one of his book reviews. I can only take it as a backhanded criticism—albeit unintentional.

© J C Lester September 2002


Escape from Lester: A Reply from a so-called 'Philistine’[i]


I suppose that one common problem for too many academics is taking criticism of their philosophical claims as personal attacks. One example of this are Jan Lester’s hysterical ad hominems against—it would seem—everyone to have reviewed Escape from Leviathan [hereafter, “EFL”]. Ad hominem attacks are something Lester disapproves of, as stated in a reply to Tibor Machan’s review in Review of Politics: “A serious response can help to elucidate matters even when that criticism mainly comprises [of] superficial misreadings, misquotations, unsubstantiated assertions, ill-tempered ad hominems and elementary linguistic confusion that together amount to a professional disgrace.” Yet this is precisely what Lester does again and again, no less with me. For example, Lester says:

“Has Brooks really grasped what philosophy is supposed to be about?”

“Why does Brooks systematically avoid philosophical argument?”

“Brooks would not know a philosophical argument from a hole in the ground.”

“Would that Brooks could even get to grips with the surface. How could he know what 'greater depth’ is?”

“[P]hilosophy is all a bit beyond him.”

And my favourite: “If he is teaching at his listed university, it is Brooks’s job to know something about what he is teaching. But, judging by his review, he does not have a clue. And others are forced to pay for him.”

So much for Lester’s self-professed embrace of “rational criticism” where we avoid unwarranted assertions, misquotations and “ill-tempered ad hominems”! Alas, I have no intention of responding to each of Lester’s complaints because I stand by my review of what was a poorly argued and minor work in libertarian thought. And I must say that I gained much comfort from seeing that all of the reviews of EFL in the more prominent academic journals—such as Review of Politics, Political Studies, and my review in Journal of Applied Philosophy—were not persuaded by Lester’s claims, in addition to John Gray’s lukewarm “endorsement” (Gray being someone I very much respect). In addition, I have nothing personal against Lester. To be quite honest, I look forward to seeing new things in the future, although not the sad replies which I hope stop. Thus, this response is no attempt at a vindictive counterattack to the personal slights against me. (Suffice to say, Lester’s behaviour has been reprehensible.)

The complaint against Lester centred on what I saw as a sleight of hand. Citing Lester’s EFL:

“[I]n the long term, there are no systematic clashed among interpersonal liberty, general welfare, and market-anarchy, where these terms are to be             understood roughly as follows: 'interpersonal liberty’ is 'not being imposed on by others’; 'general welfare’ is 'people having their unimposed-wants  satisfied’; 'market-anarchy’ is 'unrestricted libertarian trade’” (pp. 2-3).

As I state in my review, Lester endorses the conception of negative liberty (something he now claims he does not entirely understand). In Lester’s rebuke of my review, we are told that “liberty is nothing like the 'absence of all constraints’. It is the absence of proactive impositions by other people.” Yet, if other do not impose upon me I am constrained by no one (certainly not directly). Thus, the distinction being drawn out is perhaps not as clear (and certainly not as convincing) as Lester assumes it to be. General welfare understood as pure want-satisfaction is certainly compatible with a notion of liberty as the absence of proactive constraints: in practical terms, they are almost identical. In addition, *surprise!* it is discovered that market-anarchy is identical, I mean compatible, with liberty and welfare. (Lester claims no redefinition is in place, only a defence of “particular theories of these things”—underlining my point.)

Of course, there could be discord being having (negative) freedom and this freedom contributing to one’s welfare. One thinks of possible cases where a people may be free in small autonomous groups where welfare (incorporating a sense of mental and physical well-being) could be better achieved through some kind of collective action. For example, (and despite my personal opposition to the war) the civilians of Iraq have a kind of “freedom” at the moment. Yet, if that devastated land were left entirely on its own, its recovery would be a far more painful process than if international bodies and the global community offer assistance (although we can debate the form this assistance takes). Freedom and welfare—that is, welfare in a substantively recognisable form—seem to presuppose some basic level of material subsistence. Freedom means little when living is impossible. Nevertheless, even if my argument is not entirely convincing, it is certainly true that people may want things that do not benefit their welfare: whether this be overconsumption of food or drink, perhaps gambling, etc. The problem with Lester’s use of welfare is that it goes against the grain of our intuitions (yes, philosophers rightly worry when intuitions and “arguments” clash) and is indefensible.[ii]

Lester’s sleight of hand aside, there is one crucial misreading smeared all over the various replies to book reviews and notes of EFL. That is, these discussions of the book are confined to brief book reviews and notes. Perhaps, for Lester, it is something of a great disappointment that this book has not merited any substantive discussion in articles, review essays, or books. No doubt, reviews editors give their reviewers parameters to work within: my review (of three books) was twice as long as it was commissioned to be. I am very grateful it ran in its original form. But Lester seems to think that in 300 words, maybe 1000, extended philosophical argument is to be expected. It cannot be so. The nature of the review is that things, as it were, must be short and sweet: if the book is unconvincing, it is enough to state it like that. And, no, I do not think Lester’s book deserves more attention than it has achieved.

However, one does have every opportunity to provide these extended philosophical arguments within a manuscript. Constraints of eighty thousand or more words allow the room that one thousand word limits do not. Yet, Lester states so clearly in EFL:

“Other people might well see many of my interpretations as mere personal intuitions that are biased in the direction of the compatibility thesis. But as I have so much basic ground to cover to develop the general theory, and cannot  possible guess which points will prove the most controversial and for what reasons, I am obliged to wait until any specific points are helpfully made in criticism of this book” (p. 61).

I very reasonably state in my review that—as this statement above shows—the work “should have been argued at much greater depth and which ought to have stood up to greater reflection and comments by colleagues. To wait until poor book reviews to finally understand what criticisms his position warrant is baffling, not to mention far too late” (Thom Brooks, Review of Escape from Leviathan, by J. C. Lester, for Journal of Applied Philosophy 19 (2002), p. 83.) Lester counters: “The reason I wrote that it seemed 'better to be “too quick” than “too slow’” was that I knew that the Brookses of this world would always miss the point no matter how much I laboured it … Would that Brooks could even get to grips with the surface.”

What all of this should make plain is that this not a particularly ground-breaking work by a person with an axe to grind with anyone resembling a critic. In reply after reply, Lester complains how no one is offering adequately thorough philosophical arguments, while admittedly avoiding any such thing in EFL. You can’t have it both ways and happily skip around in a book and get upset that book note authors (working within limits of 300-500 words) must skip around to convey anything about the book under review. Moreover, one should not become all pious about his or her embrace of “rational criticism” and the pursuit of truth while relapsing into hysterical ad hominems at every turn. Not only is this unprofessional, but resembles a philosophical immaturity unbecoming someone so keen to influence others. In short, I am one of many open to converting back to libertarianism. Lester clearly does not help the cause, at least not with the wailing replies.

Many great works by brilliant minds have not been recognized as such by their peers. It would be no slight to say that EFL is not considered groundbreaking by moral or political philosophers, certainly not outside a small group comprised of mostly true believers. The difference with EFL is that I doubt its day will ever come.

[i] Might I say that Philistines have historically had an unfair rap. Nonetheless, this is a reply to J. C. Lester’s ad hominem polemic “Smiting Statist Philosophical Philistinism.”

[ii] I will hide my outrage at the comment on sexism by Lester: “what’s wrong with that anyway?”


A rejoinder to
 “Escape from Lester: A Reply from a so-called 'Philistine’” (Thom Brooks)

Contra Thom Brooks’s title, I did not call him a Philistine. My title accused him of philosophical Philistinism: a much more precise and relevant accusation. Perhaps I have responded harshly to an undergraduate review. I do not know. Clearly my attempt to spur Brooks to engage the arguments more closely has failed. Indeed, he has largely ignored the relatively detailed arguments in my reply and wasted most of his space on a few supposed ad hominems and in attempting to retaliate for them (though he absurdly denies this).

An ad hominem is the fallacy of addressing the qualities of a person explicitly as a way of undermining or bolstering an argument or assertion of his. It is not any “attack” or criticism of a person. Pointing out that someone is philosophically hopeless having already shown the errors in his arguments is not an ad hominem. It is a conclusion. This can only look “hysterical” to the hopeless philosopher in question. In none of the putative ad hominems quoted in Brooks’s reply does he show that any particular argument of the original review was targeted by these conclusions. But the remarks were, in any case, little more than following a strategy of tit for tat at Brooks’s various comments on the supposed philosophical shallowness of Escape from Leviathan (EFL). So Brooks simply looks foolish for finding my conclusions “reprehensible” and stating that he “gained much comfort” from finding others who agree with him “in the more prominent academic journals” (is this supposed to be an argument from authority, gloating, or what?). Brooks thinks it better to avoid “responding to each of Lester’s complaints” just “because” he has not changed his mind. “[B]ecause”? It is only because one still disagrees that argument is possible and desirable. Argument is not compulsory, of course. But, as before, I intend to deal with all of Brooks’s “complaints” (as he calls my criticisms)—such as they are.

Brooks then writes, “As I state in my review, Lester endorses the conception of negative liberty”. No, the expression used in his review was, in fact, “negative freedom” and not “negative liberty”. In a very brief discussion in EFL of Isaiah Berlin’s conception of “negative liberty” this term does occur a few times and is related to the libertarian conception. But it is not “endorsed” as the libertarian conception except as reinterpreted. Brooks continues, “(something he now claims he does not entirely understand).” My reply to the review says, “I cannot be entirely sure what Brooks intends by 'negative freedom’” (emphasis added). That is quite different from Brooks’s assertion. Such sloppiness is typical of Brooks’s responses.

My reply to the review states that (interpersonal) liberty is “the absence of proactive impositions by other people.” Brooks objects that “if other [sic.] do not impose upon me I am constrained by no one (certainly not directly).” Yes, that is right. But one can still be constrained by 1. other things (one’s abilities, limited technology, etc.), and 2. other people in a reactive (defensive or rectificatory) way. However, these do not count as restrictions on liberty as the term is being interpreted in EFL (where all this is explained at great length). Brooks appears not to have grasped this basic conception. If he really read EFL completely, he did not do so carefully.

It is, part of, the thesis of EFL that welfare as want-satisfaction does not in practice systematically clash with liberty as the absence of proactive constraints. Brooks thinks he can concede this. But if typical theories of the welfare state are true then it cannot be true. The welfare state restricts liberty, as interpreted, in a variety of ways but is commonly supposed on balance to reduce suffering and bring many desirable advantages that people clearly want and would judge themselves worse off without. Brooks appears to imply, but is typically unclear, that the libertarian view is that these things are not really wanted. If so, that is an error. The libertarian view is that the welfare state produces worse education, pensions, healthcare, etc., than the market and charity would. Nor is it “discovered” (so there is no “*surprise!*”) that market-anarchy is compatible with liberty and welfare. That is also part of the thesis that is defended. Nor is it true by “redefinition”. Brooks simply ignores every explanation and argument in EFL and in my reply to his review and merely repeats his original charge. Merely repeating the same assertions based on a vague impression instead of getting to grips with the actual arguments used simply is not philosophy. Brooks does not appear to grasp that a theory is not a definition or he does not have any argument, beyond an apparent suggestion, about why the distinction is illusory in EFL.

Brooks wants to insist that “[o]f course, there could be discord being [sic. Between?] having (negative) freedom and this freedom contributing to one’s welfare.” As I want to insist on this as well he is not obviously disagreeing with me. But his example is that “the civilians of Iraq have a kind of 'freedom’ at the moment. Yet, if that devastated land were left entirely on its own, its recovery would be a far more painful process than if international bodies and the global community offer assistance…”. If, ex hypothesi, all that happens is that people “offer assistance” how is that supposed to compromise the freedom of the Iraqis? And why does “freedom … seem to presuppose some basic level of material subsistence”? Why cannot someone be free but in poverty? Saying that “[f]reedom means little when living is impossible” is a vague political slogan, not an explanation.

Those obscure political points aside, Brooks wants to affirm the more individualistic view that “people may want things that do not benefit their welfare: whether this be overconsumption of food or drink, perhaps gambling, etc.” Two main things need to be said about this assertion. First, EFL does not deny that people can damage their welfare, even as they conceive it, as a result of their liberty. The claim is that overall and in the long term people will have more welfare if they are at liberty to make their own mistakes. Second, if people freely choose to pay with part of their health or wealth for some activities, then they must regard themselves as better off. And so want-satisfaction seems to be a useful modus vivendi conception of welfare, where no one tries to impose his preferred way of life on others on the basis that they will be 'better off’ no matter how much they resent the imposition. Obviously this is a different conception of welfare from some paternalistic ones. But one cannot simply dismiss the want-satisfaction view of welfare because it is not one of these (and they are not consistent anyway).

Does this go “against the grain of our intuitions”? It is not clear how or why, or whose, intuitions should be trumps over such arguments (which word, ironically, Brooks puts in warning quotation marks). Why are such views “indefensible”? Brooks has written nothing to show that they are. Brooks mistakes these arguments for a “sleight of hand” because he thinks they are based on stipulative definitions. This is simply ignoring the defences of them from various real criticisms. And why does Brooks bother to footnote his emotional response (“outrage”) at my question, which he calls a comment, asking what is wrong with sexism? Why does he not tell us? Does he think his politically correct emotional reaction is superior to an explanation?

I have no objection to book reviews and notes being “brief”. It might have been better if Brooks’s review had been briefer, or at least more accurate and philosophical. The accusations that Brooks “smears all over” what he writes are insufficiently backed up by quotation and he has none here (and when he does we see that his interpretation is reliably hopeless). Of course an “extended philosophical argument” will not take place in a short review. But a short review is a poor excuse for impressionistic and unsubstantiated assertions that are then merely contradicted by common sense. Brooks returns to a criticism in his original review. He requotes me. He quotes himself. He quotes my reply. In my passage I am explaining that I have, for reasons of space, dealt quickly with some critics in order to cover the ground of the overall theory. He appears to think that this is inconsistent with my complaint that others are too brief and that I, in the space of a whole book, ought not to have been so brief. But I have no such complaint. Precision is quite compatible with brevity. And it would, indeed, have been impossible to deal with all the critics in detail. I could, for instance, reasonably have spent an entire book going into the details of how far Murray Rothbard uses libertarian arguments or discussing competing views on free will.

As explained, it would appear that Brooks has not even grasped the basic conception of liberty that EFL defends. So, whatever its undoubted failings, he is in a poor position to evaluate the overall book. My replies to other critics are not, of course, germane to how hopeless Brooks is as a critic. But I have never complained that they are not “offering adequately thorough philosophical arguments”. Where are Brooks quotations to back up this assertion? I have sometimes complained that when making particular criticisms of assertions I have supposedly made, they have not shown where I made them, or they have merely ignored my actual arguments, or they have failed to attempt to put their finger on the part of my argument that they think is faulty. And I have never admitted to such behaviour in EFL. I have no objection at all to those who “skip around to convey anything about the book under review.” But precision of quotation or interpretation and saying exactly where some supposed fault lies is quite possible in the area on which one briefly settles.

Next we have another piece of careless impressionism and hypocrisy from Brooks. He says, “one should not become all pious about his or her embrace of “rational criticism” and the pursuit of truth while relapsing into hysterical ad hominems at every turn.” Are “all pious” and “hysterical” (again) not “ad hominems” (at least in Brooks’s sense of the word)? Why does he have “rational criticism” in proper quotation marks? I did not use the expression. He is perhaps inaccurately recalling some discussion about critical rationalism. But in what way is giving tit for tat and counter-concluding that someone is philosophically hopeless at odds with “rational criticism”? And so Brooks’s (to give more tit for tat) “unprofessional” and “philosophical immaturity” continues in this second of his “wailing replies”, etc., etc. Amongst all this floundering he throws in the claim that he is “one of many open to converting back to libertarianism”. Who are these “many” ex-libertarians? Does he seriously mean he was a private-property libertarian? I doubt it. Or is he simply conflating all who might have called themselves 'libertarian’ in some sense? In which case, how could he expect EFL to convert him “back” to a different kind of libertarianism?

Like other philosophers, what I often object to is sloppy criticism. I have welcomed, and carefully responded to, any serious criticism.

© J C Lester (May, 2003)


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